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Struggling Students Learn — by Teaching

  • Faiza Elmasry

It might sound like a recipe for educational disaster: Take kids who need to improve their reading skills and have them tutor other kids who have trouble reading. But that’s exactly the idea behind a literacy program in Washington, and it has proven to be a recipe for success.

Reach Incorporated, a nonprofit that aims to develop confident readers and capable leaders, began the program in 2010. Since then, more than 500 high school and elementary school students have taken part.

A screen capture of the home page of Reach Inc.

A screen capture of the home page of Reach Inc.

The teens selected to become tutors are usually struggling in school themselves. There’s a reason for that, said Lori Pitts, the group’s curriculum and creativity coordinator.

“We believe that giving teenagers real responsibilities allows them to create change in that community and to actually better themselves, because now they’ve been entrusted with this big responsibility," she said.

For the teens, the results so far have been obvious and positive.

“We actually have a test that tests their reading level at the beginning of the year, at the middle of the year and at the end of the year,” Pitts said. “Most of our tutors grow about two grade levels per year.”

Rico McCard, 17, is one of about six dozen student tutors. Before joining the program four years ago, he was struggling. Now, his grades have improved and he's more confident.

“I was kind of shy my first day here at Reach,” he said. “I didn’t say much. I didn’t say much for two weeks, actually. I was, like, by myself in a corner. ... And every time the teacher had called on me, I basically would shy away from the question.”

Educators at Reach give the teens tutoring skills. They also evaluate their performance. Rico said that helped him understand how to engage young students.

'Match their intensity'

“You got to have the confidence,” he said. “You got to have the enthusiasm. You got to show toughness. You got to show energy. Because with second- and third-graders, you know, they are going to show energy, running around everywhere. So you got to match their intensity.”

He talks to them, especially if they’re having a bad day.

“What I do is to take a break from the work for a minute, tell them how your day was," he said. "I would play a small game to take their mind off what had happened today.”

Pitts said games are actually an important part of this tutoring program.

“I like to make it engaging by not always having them write on a worksheet," she said. "There is a component where they pair up and talk to a friend, or they get to apply their knowledge in some way through a game.”

Judith Miller, a teacher at Payne Elementary School in Washington, said her students benefit a lot from this program.

“They get to see what it is to be with high school students and how the high school students interact with them,” she said. When the tutors are doing handling the instruction, "it’s not a different process, but it’s fun. The [high school] students are not as direct with them, like their classroom teachers. So they get to see the same standards, but in a different way.”

The tutors are paid for their work, but Rico, who’s been in the program for four years, said he doesn't participate just for the money.

“It’s what I’m doing for these kids. To be honest with you, I come here every single day working with the kids, making sure they’re happy," he said. "I would do my best. [I would] do what I can do as a person.”

That’s the best evidence that the Reach program is making a difference for young students, and the teens who tutor them.

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